I was a sixth grader at Hubbard Heights Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas in 1967. My family was on furlough from the mission field and we were members at University Baptist Church. America was a foreign country to my brother and me. I learned that year that there were people who lived in one house their whole lives, what penny loafers were, and how to play organized basketball.
I should interject here that I am, and have always been, an amazingly average athlete. Since I was a part of Royal Ambassadors (think Southern Baptist Boy Scouts) with my friends at church and they all played basketball, I joined the team. They were good. I was not. After watching me at practice, coach kept me on the bench. But in one game where we were way ahead, he sent me in with two minutes left. I fouled out. My prowess on the basketball court has remained steady all of these years, as has my allegiance to the Boston Red Sox. 1967 was the year they played the St. Louis Cardinals to seven games, eventually losing, as they had done for many years and would do for many more.
As I got ready to go to school one morning, my dad asked me if I wanted to come home and watch the game with him. It was a time before television decided when the games started, so there were still afternoon games. He said, “Your team is in the World Series and we’re only in the States once every four years; I’ll write you a note to come home.” It remains one of the coolest things my dad ever did. I walked home and watched games and had my heart broken, like any good Red Sox fan. I grew up and went to Baylor, whose teams, traditionally, were accustomed to the near miss, which is to say they were used to coming close but not winning.
Then came November 9, 1974. Earl Campbell and the Texas Longhorns came to Baylor Stadium intending to beat us as they had done every year I had been alive and more. At half time, Texas led 24-0. Stories have been told about what Grant Teaff said to the team and legends have grown, but what we saw was a complete reversal: when the game was over, Baylor had won 34-24 and went on to win the Southwest Conference that year for the first time in fifty years. They left the scoreboard lights on all night long.
In those days, Baylor played basketball at the Heart of Texas Coliseum (that’s the HOT Coliseum to you and me), which was a rodeo arena. No one even thought about the NCAA tournament. We were not good. So to spend this weekend watching both the men and the women who play basketball at Baylor earn their way into their respective Elite Eights is as incredible as beating Earl Campbell and Friends that cool November evening. I must say, here, that the women have a winning tradition, bringing home an NCAA championship just a couple of years ago, but up until last week the men had not won a tournament game in fifty years.
My heart has been pledged to teams who have been occasional winners, if at all. This could be a year when we get a taste of new wine; it could also be another year when we come up short of that final victory. I am not used to expecting the former.
A big part of the reason my father wanted my brother and me to be active athletically was sports was the best metaphor for life for him. It was where you learned a lot of life’s lessons with less pain, he told us. Maybe he’s right. As one who was never fastest or first pick, I learned how to sit on a bench, how to share in the success that comes from what others can do. I also learned how to lose, which was an important lesson. I learned that sometimes you get to win, as well. And then I learned life isn’t life sports after all.
Even if it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game, life is not a game and our existence cannot be reduced to a competition. Well, it can, but then you end up with the ridiculous discourse spewing out of our pundits and politicians in the wake of who won and lost in the health care debate, for instance. When life is measured by victories, it becomes consumed with conquest and we end up believing what Vince Lombardi said about football, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
To be a success in sports means you have to win. After all of the great games and touching stories, after all the buzzer beaters and overtime thrillers, all that will matter is who wins the championship. Sixty-four out of sixty-five teams will have fallen short, or (as my eighth graders are consumed with saying) will have failed. The point was to win. They didn’t. There is only one winner. That’s the seminal lesson of sports.
Life is not a winner-take-all competition. I do, however, think of it as a team sport. Yes, there are those who keep score, who consider who is winning, and who foul without getting called for it. But here’s the way the writer of Hebrews talks about it:
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.
Don’t win; just run. Together.